Apple's “Special Event” was underwhelming, but that's a good thing
Not long ago I unearthed this aqua-blue plastic box from my basement that contained several dozen floppy discs I once revered as the sepulchral, digital chamber holding the most important details of my life.
At the time, I trusted I'd always be able to retrieve these moments upon any whim in the hazy future. That didn't happen. Here in 2015, I didn't have a computer that could read those floppy discs. Except it turned out I did. My wife had preserved a mid-80's vintage Macintosh beneath its vinyl covering which, miraculously, still functioned. Say what you will about Steve Jobs, but this was a pretty great triumph of Apple's technology.
Only, the floppy discs contained things that, in hindsight, were destined to dissolve into the cruel oblivion of personal memory: midnight essays typed as acts of procrastination during finals week, early emails that once held a paramount importance I couldn't recall anymore with precision. Basically, digital-life artifacts I'd worked hard to preserve into amber that, once retrieved, seemed random. The ball-point memories I scratched into the lined-paper journal I'd paid a buck for back then seemed much more relevant.
I felt less bad for my younger, archiving self than I did for Apple. The parts of our lives we wanted instinctively to endure became ink leaked onto pulp, not files housed in silicon. Paper volumes we still house on oft-dusted bookshelves. It was the technology that Apple designed to usher us into the great, digital future that got thrown out – or, if the technology was lucky, encased inside a dust cover and forgotten about for decades.
Apple, in time, learned not only to live with the disposability of digital architecture, but to profit from it. iPhones are meant to last a year or two. If you don't resell yours back to your carrier, you must endure the furrowed brows of the 6S owners who look awkwardly askance once they see you own last year's model. The Macbook I bought in 2009 can't update to the MacOS of later laptops. The hardware still works, but the programs aren't supported anymore. So I'm left with a Bing Bong whose shell and chipsets remain faithful to their owner, but no contemporary application wants to play with it.
Apple gets away with this because it keeps upping its game. Not just new products – the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad – but new software like iTunes, iCloud and Siri. Well, okay, iTunes, iCloud and Siri have never yet lived up to the standards of Apple hardware. But when I looked back on those floppy discs and found the old Claris bundles like MacWrite, MacPaint and FileMaker, I realized how they have evolved into everyday apps.
You may use Pages, Word or LibreOffice instead of MacWrite, and you may still plug data into FileMaker, but all of these have been reiterated over the years into things we use every day. And I still have my doubts about iCloud, but I think Siri and Apple Music are being slowly reiterated into something we may one day actually like using.
There have been many words – of the digital kind - spilled after Apple had its latest Special Event Wednesday. And most of those words have been wasted on either defending the idea that profound meaning can be extracted from this event or the idea that it was a total waste of time because it didn't bring us into some collective fanboy orgasm.
But I don't think this is what Apple was trying to do at all. I think the Special Event was trying to signal to us that, at the end of the day, Apple is just another company. Most of what we think of as revolutionary from Apple has actually been incremental. The only trick at hand was a relentless focus few other companies can sustain.
The Mac lineup was designed to preserve the personal computer from perversions that others introduced to increase sales. The iPod took a kludgy MP3 player and turned it into a must-have device. The iPhone and iPad, above all, were the devices that turned the unwanted Newton into something beloved by consumers. Each was proffered in some Special Event. Most were the result of years, if not decades, of work.
There were no magic tricks from Apple this week (as there tends not to be in the off-year, “S” cycles of iPhones). But there were updates on innovations no other company is matching: The haptic technology on the iPhone 6S screen that Apple has been working for years. (Apple implies it will become the standard, and it feels like it will in time). Or the Siri interface in Apple TV. The same interface it's been pushing on us for years on our iPhones. But that nobody but John Malkovich seemed impressed with. (To his credit, he is a great actor.) Or that super-planetary iPad, with quadropheniac speakers.
I'm not going to rush out and buy the new Apple TV, but looking at it I see something that has evolved from a product I don't particularly want to a product I am intrigued by. And I have no need for a 12.9-inch, Retina-display iPad Pro in quadrophenia, but there is some primal part of the consumer in me that wouldn't mind having one. And I'm just uncoordinated enough that my fingers will fail to make effective use of the 3D Touch screen, but I see the value of expanding the language of a touch interface.
By those measures, Apple's Event was a bust. And if so, this is a more of a failure of PR than of technology. Apple has conditioned us to expect some fluffy, overfed rabbit pulled from Tim Cook's hat. But like any magician, Cook knows that magic trickd have nothing to do with magic, and everything to do with the hard work that goes into slow, painful evolution of innovation. The innovation part is easy. The hard part is finding a way for said innovation to wend its way into our lives.
So if you put aside your addictive need to be dazzled by these ridiculously hyped Events, and if you simply look at Apple's announcements as updates of works in progress, things are not too bad. They're actually pretty good. The PR department will act like this or that product is revolutionary at some point in the future, but everything Apple does happens incrementally.
I was relieved not to see a Bono past its expiration date or a played-out Coldplay on stage. Nothing makes Apple seem more out of it than a living fossil swinging stiff joints to celebrate the future of tech. Apple is 39 years old but as lithe as many startups. Its best and only magic is tricking us into using technologies many of us underestimated when we first saw them. That was true for the iPod, the iPad and services like the App Store. And it may be true for the incremental innovations Apple showed us this week.